Give credit to Michael Kinsley and his staff at the liberal Web site Slate.com. The day before the election, almost the entire staff declared which presidential candidate they would be voting for and why. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority (including 12 of 13 top editors) voted for Al Gore.
But it would be tremendously refreshing if all journalists were this honest around election time, to let us know their voting behaviors and rationales. What they do instead - pretend that they're utterly nonpartisan, and so is their work product - is maddening in its perpetual dishonesty. After all, wouldn't their actual voting records harm their attempts to point the finger of partisanship at others, like Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris? How could Dan Rather refer nightly to "Republican prosecutor Ken Starr" when he was clearly identified as a party-line Democratic voter?
For his part, Kinsley directed this political outing because of journalistic ethics, which often demands today that any business conflict of interest be noted. "Why shouldn't the same logic apply to politics? If you're not going to refrain from voting, why not let your readers know how you voted so they can judge your objectivity for themselves? If you're asking them to trust you despite your political opinions, shouldn't they know what those opinions are? If you believe you do an adequate job of preventing your opinions from curdling into bias, what are you afraid of?"
Slate editor Jack Shafer (the odd man out, who voted for Libertarian Harry Browne), asked 33 high-profile journalists to declare their votes, but Kinsley suggested "Fear of confirming conservative suspicions about the liberal predisposition of the media is probably the main reason other journalists will resist following our lead." He added: "No doubt it is easier just to keep your political opinions secret and imply that you don't have any. But that absurdity or dishonesty itself undermines your credibility. Or it ought to." Bravo, honest liberal!
Kinsley sensibly believes that perfect objectivity is impossible, and that reporters' voting behavior doesn't automatically translate into blatant bias. As many times as conservatives can note the Freedom Forum survey that 89 percent of Washington reporters and editors voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, the argument never ends there. You can be greatly opinionated in private, and unbiased in print or on the air. Bias must be documented, not simply assumed.
Kinsley began his column by referring to the infamous ascetic habits of Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, who proclaims he never votes, and recently added that he never even considers a voter's thought. But a man in Downie's position has much more political influence than the average voter. While Downie boasted his pristine nonpartisan perfection, his newspaper was publishing daily valentines to Senator Chuck Robb in his failed quest for re-election. One day, the Post published a front-page picture of Robb surrounded by his laughing, hugging daughters and his wife under the headline "A Quiet Fighter in His Toughest Battle." Newspaper or campaign brochure? It was hard to tell.
By comparison, the admissions of Slate writers were satisfying in their direct admissions. Timothy Noah, a former reporter for Newsweek, U.S. News, and the Wall Street Journal, declared "I'm a Democrat, and I almost always vote for the Democrat." Marjorie Williams, a former Washington Post reporter and current Post columnist, echoed: "I'm a Democrat, and while I can theoretically imagine voting for a Republican candidate for president, I never have."
By contrast, the journalists who answered Shafer's request for their votes formed a cavalcade of cocky denials. Time editor Walter Isaacson played Len Downie: "In races Time has to cover, I felt it made sense to remain neutral and nonpartisan by not forcing myself to decide, even in my own mind, whom I favored." But his magazine began Hillary's campaign with a nine-page cover-story glorifying the mere possibility of "Senator Hillary?" That same week, Juanita Broaddrick's rape allegations were dismissed on one page with the overtly stated hope that the story would vanish.
Time writer Matt Cooper protested "We've got a secret ballot in this country to reduce the pressure on people. Declaring my vote would be an invitation to pressure - from colleagues, readers, sources, bosses, etc. I'd rather not go there." Cooper is married to Clinton-Gore spin controller Mandy Grunwald, but in April, he did puff up candidate Ralph Nader as an "American icon," quoting pollster John Zogby: "He's retro-cool...the same way my kids like Led Zeppelin and Cream."
These answers only underline the glorious double-sided arrogance of the media elite. It's our job to savage public officials and mind-read their cynical partisan motives, but no one should press us. We're pure and unquestionable.
The Internet folks at Slate should take a bow, and accept the applause. They've shown the old school how things should be done.